Fiji’s access to the General System of Preferences trade scheme hangs in the balance after the expulsion of a United Nations agency. As the Fiji regime moves into international damage control, at home the country’s increasingly volatile industrial relations situation has taken another step backwards.
Report – By Harry Pearl
The Fiji military-backed regime has “shot itself in the foot” after expelling a leading United Nations agency from the country, claims a prominent Fijian trade unionist.
Felix Anthony, national secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress, has described the breakdown of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) mission to Fiji last month as “unprecedented”, saying the government only had itself to blame for compromising Fiji’s access to the General System of Preferences (GSP).
The review by the US government, which came at the request of Fijian unions and is now underway, will examine whether Fiji is meeting international standards for worker rights.
If access is scuppered, Fiji stands to lose 15,000 jobs across the 39 companies that benefit from duty-free exports under the scheme, said the regime.
Professor Biman Prasad, of the Business and Economics Faculty at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, said even a small number of job losses would be a blow for the country.
“The private sector is struggling and workers are also struggling with low wages in most sectors,” he told Pacific Scoop.
“In the last decade, Fiji has had poor growth and high levels of unemployment and if exports decline through lack of access to markets, we could be in a worse situation.”
Dr Prasad said the government’s decision to ask the ILO mission to leave had created unnecessary controversy.
“The GSP has clear clauses relating to human rights and worker rights and this may cause problems in keeping the access to GSP.”
The ILO mission was visiting Fiji to verify a series complaints made by local trade unions since July 2009 that related to violations of union and labour rights, including limitations on freedom of association.
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama invited the direct contacts mission to Fiji, but called it short in the midst of its first meeting on September 17. The regime then set new terms of reference that the delegation found unacceptable.
Point of view
According to the ILO: “The proposed new terms of reference set out a point of view for which it seeks confirmation, and calls into question certain findings and principles of the tripartite Committee on Freedom of Association.”
The regime then asked the mission to leave immediately.
Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, condemned the decision and said it “puts a greater spotlight on the critical situation of freedom of association in Fiji.”
The regime has issued a string of rebukes against the country’s unions since the ILO team was asked to leave on September 19.
Prime Minister Bainimarama said most recently in a statement: “I want to say how disappointed I am that a handful of trade unionists, as we all know, have been prepared to use ordinary workers as pawns in their struggle with government to protect their own interests and position.”
The regime also made efforts to quell any international attention with a strong defence of the country’s current labour practices at the UN General Assembly in New York last week.
Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola told the 67th Assembly: “We seek to ensure that unions can take collective action as directed by their member workers, and are subject only to restrictions that are generally accepted to protect the public good.”
However Anthony, who has personally been intimidated and beaten by the military, said there was no doubt that the regime is violating labour standards in Fiji.
“The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association and the Committee on the Application of Standards have both issued reports on the labour situation in Fiji, and clearly point out the violations that the decrees they have imposed have on labour standard.”
Since 2009 the regime has issued a number of decrees which violate international labour standards and they have received widespread international condemnation.
“The assault on the trade unions since 2009 has been very visible, in terms of law, in terms of intimidation, in terms of restrictions based on unions in the country by various decrees,” Anthony said, when asked how the situation had changed over the past two years.
David Lamotte, Director of the ILO office in Suva, which covers 22 Pacific Island member states, said it was fair to say the situation had become more volatile over the past 18 months.
However, he said in the weeks leading up to the ILO mission tripartite negotiations between workers, unions and the government were productive and being conducted in good faith.
“Why I find this whole situation so sad is because things were moving forward,” he said.
Worker, employers goodwill
“There is goodwill from the workers and the employers and the Ministry of Labour.”
Prior to the ILO visit, the tripartite Employment Relations Advisory Board (ERAB) was reviewing labour laws.
This included the country’s peak piece of labour legislation, the Employment Relations Promulgation.
“The idea was that the tripartite committee was working to, at the request of the Prime Minister, was to see how all those decrees could be examined and integrated into the ERP,” Lamotte said.
Anthony, who was a member on the ERAB board, said the relationship between workers and employers was “reasonable” but said there was “confusion” from within the government.
“The Ministry of Labour totally agrees with the employers and the trade unions in so far as the violations to labour standards go and the fix to the problem.
“However, we have the Attorney-General and some of his people who simply don’t understand what international labour standards are all about and have continued to block any steps to resolve these issues.”
A press release from the ILO said that when the Prime Minister’s Office presented the mission new terms of reference, the regime argued “as result of miscommunication between respective Fijian ministries, the terms of reference provided by the Ministry of Labour did not articulate the correct scope of such a visit.”
Anthony has called on the Prime Minister to take a position.
“He hasn’t been getting the best advice recently from his own people, but he needs to look at the issues and understand the commitment that he has made to the ILO and also the government’s obligation by virtue of being a member of the ILO.”
Dr Prasad said the breakdown of the ILO mission to the country was a lost opportunity.
“Given that the constitutional process is underway and there has already been a degree of confidence returning to the country generally, the situation with respect to the ILO mission is regrettable.”
Lamotte said the circumstances were frustrating, and what had looked like a step forward had actually been two steps back.
“The timing was wrong, the way it was done was wrong, and we really hope we can all find a way of getting back on track and start a dialogue again.”
Harry Pearl is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.